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The champion of ‘open source’

Traditional wisdom always told us that too many cooks spoil the broth, but it took the genius of Wales to dish out Wikipedia and prove that wrong. Praveen Donthi speaks to the man himself.

india Updated: May 16, 2012 13:23 IST

The New York Times review of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead called it “a hymn in praise of the individual”. Probably it’s not very surprising that the individual who has revolutionised the terrain of human knowledge, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Donal Wales, is a fan of Rand’s philosophy. So much so, he named his daughter Kira after the protagonist from Rand’s first novel, We the Living.

Founded in 2001 and aptly named ‘wiki’— Hawaiian for quick —Wikipedia is the world’s largest encyclopedia. “It has become the eighth most popular website, with over seven million articles in more than 150 languages,” says Wales. Did he foresee that? “I did, and then again I didn’t. I always knew that it was a big idea, but I thought that if we were very successful we could be in the top 50, not in the top 10.”

Wales, who frequently tours five continents, holds a 10-year visa to India. “India is my favourite place to visit.” And the response from India to Wikipedia? “I am very excited about it’s growth in Indian languages, a real bright spot for us in the last 18 months. We really need more contributors. I hope that your readers will understand the importance of bringing free knowledge to all the people of India, even those who do not speak English, and will come and help us with that dream.”

Wales has just finished his second visit to Varanasi, also helped someone there in an Internet café to edit Wikipedia in Hindi. But did he edit any information on the city on Wikipedia? “I did not, because the information was already so good.”

Traditional wisdom always told us that too many cooks spoil the broth, but it took the genius of Wales to dish out Wikipedia and prove that wrong. What inspired him? “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing,” Wales had said once.

The 40-year-old was born into a humble family but went on to feature in the list of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2006. But he lives without pomp. “Well, I am not sure how influential I really am. But I think simple ideas can be very powerful, and a simple life and simple ideas go hand in hand.”

He’s a celebrity now and was even nominated for the beard of the year in 2006. “Usually when I go places, no one recognises me. This is changing somewhat now, but mostly life is normal.”

Last month, Wales launched wikia.com, a search engine where anyone is able to discuss and rank search results, write and edit mini-articles and more. “I want people to stop and think about open source ideas, about the value of transparency,” he says. “We have another search engine project. We do not think of it as a Google killer, but this does not prevent the press from considering it as such,” he adds.

This big fan of Aishwarya Rai hopes the actor will read this interview and be impressed, hastily adding: “I guess she’s already married.” Isn’t that what’s expected of the Wikipedia: up-to-date information.